AS the year draws to a close - yes, it's that time of year already - it is probably useful to start looking back on some of the trends that have defined the telecommunications industry during 1995. After all, for the industry in Hong Kong, 1995 was supposed to be THE big year of change, with the expiry of Hongkong Telecom's century-old monopoly on fixed-line communications in the territory. The introduction of fixed-line competition in Hong Kong is about as big an industry change as can be made in a single move - certainly it had been the subject of intense speculation and industry analysis in the years leading up to its introduction. And yet, in the event, the June 30 expiry of the Telecom monopoly, and the launch of the three new network competitors, seemed to come and go very quietly. No radical overnight changes. No stunning and suddenly-introduced benefits for consumers. No fireworks. It was strangely anti-climactic. One suspects that this is what the 1997 hand-over of sovereignty will amount to - an anti-climax characterised more by its evolutionary nature than any sort of revolutionary change. And yet, here we are, in a newly-competitive telecommunications market. In the years leading up to the licensing of three additional fixed-line network operators, most of the intense speculation about how the changed market would impact consumers centred on what new services would be provided. While analysts predicted there might be small shifts in the international calls market, the fact that Hongkong Telecom's monopoly on international services did not expire until 2006 dictated to many that the introduction of local competition would have little impact on the international scene. But even a cursory look at the market changes through the year reveals that the most dramatic changes in the market in 1995 have indeed been in the international arena - and to the direct benefit of consumers. The fact is that 1995 has been a very big year for international 'call-back' operators - the 'cheap' international call companies. And the biggest splash made so far by the newly licensed local fixed-network operators has similarly been in the international market, with their own 'call-back' offerings. For Hong Kong telecommunications users (that is, 'the public'), the benefits reaped have been directly connected to the hip pocket as, to the surprise of almost everyone, the services of call-back operators sparked an IDD price war. The price-war led to Telecom's reduction of IDD rates by 20 per cent and more (which led the call-back operators to further reduce their own tariffs). And despite the fact that Hongkong Telecom has a monopoly on international traffic until 2006, the loop-hole that allows call-back operators to exist will result on this pattern continuing - with IDD rates headed for a continued downward spiral. The Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) has played a big role in all of this. Early this year OFTA director-general Alex Arena gave his stamp of approval to call-back services, maintaining that the regulatory loop-hole that allows them to operate should remain open. The move was not without controversy. Elsewhere in Asia such services have been outlawed - generally in countries where the Government is acting in the specific interests of some State-owned telecommunications monopoly. By allowing call-back operators a legitimate place in the market, Mr Arena has held true to early OFTA promises that the regulatory body would allow for the introduction of competition in the market wherever the conditions of current licences allowed it to do so. This is all good news for the local consumer. It is unusual that the biggest impact of the introduction of local competition should be in the international market. The bonus, though, is that this new competition has added a vitality to the international services market that did not previously exist. And consumers should now look forward to benefits that go beyond simple cost savings. As competitive forces take root, companies will be forced to compete not simply on price, but also on the services that they offer. This means that all the players - Hongkong Telecom, the three new network operators, and call-back-only services - will start packaging international services in different ways to attract different customers, all to the benefit of consumers. In short, 1995 was the year in which competitive forces unleashed a new kind of creative thinking in the international calls market, creative thinking that will lead to the introduction of new international products and services. This should lead to the creation of a bigger 'pie' for everyone. As operators introduce services that tap the flexibility and innovations of new technologies, the international calls market will continue to grow. While per-minute tariffs might fall, the overall market size looks set for strong growth.